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In the second half of the 20th century, professional sports in America was essentially a three-legged stool comprising baseball, football and basketball.

As a midpack baby boomer, I have been conditioned to believe this is the way it will always be, as if these three sports are somehow mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

My opinion changed on a sunny Saturday in July.

Our family of four was part of a throng of 56,000-plus fans in Nissan Stadium on July 29 gathered to watch a European-brand soccer match. It was the largest crowd ever to see a soccer match in Tennessee, and it occurred to me that we are reaching a tipping point in American fan interest in the world's most popular sport.

Evidence is all around us.

Managers of our city's amateur Chattanooga FC team are exploring transitioning to a professional league, Atlanta added an expansion MLS team this year and Nashville is courting a Major League Soccer franchise as well, with Tennessee Titans legend Eddie George reportedly one of the financial backers of the push.

It feels like something big is happening here, like the National Football League must have felt in the 1950s.

Last Saturday's match in Nashville pitted two English Premiere League rivals, the Tottenham Hotspurs from Northern London and Manchester City from England's second most-populous city. Because it has such a nest of international soccer talent, the Premiere League has the distinction of being the most-watched sports league in the world.

Incredibly — to me — there were probably 10,000 hard-core Tottenham fans in Nissan Stadium, singing their team anthem to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and cheering lustily for their beloved 'Spurs. Man City fans were perhaps just as numerous, although not as united in song.

As a son of the mid-South, I never imagined I'd see 56,000 people gathered to watch a soccer game in the Volunteer State — especially a game that did not involve one of the U.S. national teams.

No, most people in the crowd at Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans of the NFL, were clearly international soccer fans. We sat in a group of supporters who took to educating our 10-year-old son on the finer points of the international game.

Two weeks beforehand, my son had purchased a Manchester City jersey on Amazon — rush order — with the name of a player on the back that he couldn't pronounce.

A gentleman sitting behind us informed him that Sergio Aguero is from Argentina and is considered one of the most gifted forwards in the world. Suddenly, my son was invested in No. 10 on the blue side, and he rose to cheer when Aguero entered the game in the second half.

"The birth of a fan," I thought to myself.

I imagined myself attending an NFL game in England and trying to explain the celebrity of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to a London lad.

Both of my sons are year-round club soccer players, so they have a natural affinity for the sport. At my younger son's elementary school, there are easily more European soccer jerseys in evidence than NFL colors.

Several trends are converging, I think, to cause this surge in soccer interest.

The internet has made it possible to be a fan of any team in the world, and cable television in the U.S. has been more than willing to accommodate America's growing soccer audience.

Too, American cities are hungry for professional spectator sports. For example, Nashville, which doesn't yet have a National Basketball Association team or Major League Baseball franchise, is eager to have an MLS team. Nashville's success with hockey's Predators could someday be repeated with a soccer franchise.

After Saturday, it's harder and harder for anyone to make the argument that the South won't eventually embrace professional soccer. In fact, it's demonstrably untrue.

Don't believe me?

Atlanta United FC is leading the 20-team MLS in attendance, averaging just over 46,000 fans per home game.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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